All Hayden Simpson needed was a role change.
The Cubs' first-round pick from 2010 was 0-3 with a 7.94 ERA with 12 walks allowed in 17 innings in his first four appearances as a starter to begin the season. As a result of those poor results, the coaching staff for Class A Advanced Daytona decided to move Simpson to the bullpen as a way of potentially jolting the starter into better outings.
The method worked Thursday.
The 22-year-old righty allowed just one hit without a walk and struck out a season-high four batters over four innings in relief of starter Matt Loosen in the Cubs' 6-5 win over Clearwater at Jackie Robinson Ballpark. Simpson (1-3) earned just the second win of his professional career in his 33rd appearance, 29 of which have been starts.
"I had been struggling a lot," Simpson said. "So they wanted me to focus on only coming in and throwing strikes. Whatever it was, the decision made me step back and realize what was going on in front of me. I've got to be more aggressive and stop nibbling around the plate because that doesn't get you anywhere."
The biggest accomplishment for the former 16th overall pick Thursday night may have been the lack of walks. On April 24, he issued seven free passes over 4 1/3 innings, and it was after that start that the Cubs staff decided to transfer Simpson out of the starting rotation.
"I got into a real walking bug there," Simpson said. "I was overthinking everything. I'd be sitting thinking about all the 'What if?' questions. So my pitching coach [Marty Mason] and I really focused during my bullpen session on attacking strike zone more. I didn't really change much to be honest with you. It was mostly me getting out of my own head."
Concerns over his fastball velocity had also chased Simpson throughout the early years of his professional career.
He did not pitch in the Cubs system in 2010 because of a bad bout with mononucleosis that caused him to lose 20 pounds over seven months. After that, Simpson's four-seam fastball, which had sat in the mid-90s during his days at Division-II Southern Arkansas University, had moved toward the mid-80s last season, when he was 1-10 with a 6.27 ERA between Rookie ball and Class A.
The four-seamer touched 90 on the gun Thursday, according to Simpson. But the hurler noted that his reliance on his sinker -- a pitch not known for its velocity -- should soften the concerns about the speed of his fastball. Nonetheless, he added he has regained all of the weight he had previously lost and his health is better than it has been in years.
"I feel good," Simpson said. "My arm feels really feels really well. I'm still working to get my strength back, so that's still a process I'm going through. But the difference between last year and this year [health-wise], it's night and day.
"I felt like I pitched in college. Now I've just got to trust the system, trust the process and execute it when I get out there."
Rubi Silva, Nelson Perez and Arismendy Alcantra all went 2-for-4 with a home run for the Cubs.
Clearwater reliever Austin Brough (0-1) allowed five runs on five hits and one walk in just 1 1/3 innings. Left fielder Brandon Tripp went 2-for-4 with a home run and three RBIs.